Photo Riffle Shuffle of Cards / Flickr-Johnny Blood CC BY-SA 2.0

One Guiding Principle for Creative Work

People will always tell you there is a proper way to do creative things. That your work should turn out a certain way, and reflect all the hallmarks of other similar creative works.

But these are only forms. And forms are mostly artificial and arbitrary. For example, when you think of a movie, you think of something that is about 90 minutes long, and if you were to make your own film, you would probably aim for this length.

But how did the 90 minute format come about?

Films started off as small things, that grew in length through experimentation, until early Hollywood execs realized that an hour and a half was the maximum amount of time that a person could sit down in a dark cinema without becoming restless and needing to go to the toilet. There is actually an old Hollywood story about how a producer stood out in the foyer, and timed how long it took, before people started showing up to go to the restroom, as a way of working out where to put the intermission in for Gone with the Wind, a famously 4-hour epic film.

So that 90 minute format is not something written in a tablet of stone about proper movie-making; it is simply a form that arose out of convenience, that other creative people also chose to adopt as an industry-standard.

So many creative forms are like this! They are not eternal truths of the universe, but self-imposed limitations.

For someone to force a ‘form’ on you, for how to do something properly is kind of ridiculous. There might be some guiding technical rules that help you along the way, like the rule-of-thirds. But ultimately, you can also choose to ignore them, if you feel confident enough in your ability.

A guiding principle for me is that a final work should be ‘interesting’ — starting with how you feel about it, which will hopefully extend to other people.

And if something isn’t interesting; if it’s boring; then discard it, and try a new approach.

The only reason people engage with something boring, is if they think they can materially gain something from it. So, reading a technical book, which isn’t immediately interesting; however, you have a sense that it will benefit you in some way.

But when it comes to creative work, this is not what people are engaging with it for. They are looking for something that is stimulating to them at some level.

It’s like the difference between 6 hours of school, and 1 hour of cartoons in the afternoon. The 6 hours of school is to help you develop your life-skills (supposedly) and it’s not always that interesting; but that 1 hour of cartoons after school is fun and laughter; the cat chasing the mouse is always interesting.

In a way, I’m paraphrasing something that the novelist Elmore Leonard said, in his ten principles of writing, “try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

Basically, that’s using your own judgement to work out what parts are not interesting, and somehow, find a way to make them interesting; which could mean, reworking those sections, changing the pace, cutting down the length, using different music, working more intuitively — whatever makes it more interesting, stimulating, and different to other things that already exist.

You only make something more interesting, through trial and error. Through repeatedly trying different combinations, and seeing what sticks, or catches your own attention, after you’ve put it down, and come back to it. For example, a poet makes a great discovery, when they combine one word, with another word, that has never really been put together before — and when a reader sees this, it jumps out at them.

But for the poet to be able to do this, they have to have tried thousands of different combinations of words leading up to it — until they hit on something that they themselves feel excited about.

Music is exactly the same; new combinations of notes, chord-progressions; new combinations of instruments that haven’t been tried before. Whatever it is, that is interesting and striking, and stands out from everything that has come before it; while maybe also echoing a few things that people are already familiar with and have a feeling for.

Anyway, I write these posts like self-help advice, which I hope they are a little bit. But they are also opportunities to vent my frustrations with the brickwall of culture that creative people are always up against, that tells you what the rules are, and chucks you aside for not following them.

Or even worse . . . responds to you with a great silence.

*Header image ‘Riffle shuffle’ (Flickr / Johnny Blood CC BY-SA 2.0)

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